Procol Harum

the Pale

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No Stiletto Shoes

Gary Brooker and friends, 20 December 1997, Chiddingfold, UK

Roland Clare

So what are we all doing here in darkest Surrey, somebody asked me. It was a fair question: the Chiddingfold Club, half working-men's amenity, half community-centre, had obviously not been designed as a music venue. An impossibly tiny stage, overpowered by two drum-kits, was visible at the far end of a low, oblong hall marked out with badminton-courts; mixing-desks, wobbling on trestle tables, rendered the tiny bar almost inaccessible in the back corner. Glittering festoons of Yuletide streamers, and two Santa Claus-like faces entreating us to buy raffle tickets, completed the oddity of the situation.

As a Shoes first-timer, I did not feel entitled to explain why a Southend man had transplanted himself, putting down roots in this remote quarter of England's green and pleasant land. But the beatific faces in the Copping video certainly suggest that the Procols approached 1970's trendy 'getting it together in the country' as a joy rather than a duty, and The Grapes at Warnham, where they are shown playing darts between the Home rehearsals, is a mere twelve miles from Chiddingfold: draw your own conclusions.

The hall was thrumming emptily to the sort of anonymous music that one hears only over a pre-gig PA. Franky Brooker came and went, calmly organising, largely unremarked by the gathering throng of local people, though warmly greeted by the Ackermanns and many fellow Whalers as they drifted in from The Crown, across the green. Then we became aware of a tall, distinguished figure meeting-and-greeting his way towards the stage, picking a path to the microphone and announcing the first attraction ...

Be Sharp
Bob Jenkins
, drums; Gary Moxam, bass and vocals; Jerry Stevenson, lead vocal, guitar / guitar synth

Gary introduced the opening band without mentioning that its leader was ex-Procol Jerry Stevenson, Prodigal Stranger guitarist. Be Sharp turned out to be an accomplished power-trio, playing a mixture of classy covers (including Steely Dan's Pretzel Logic, Ry Cooder's Down in Hollywood, and Fleetwood Mac's Green Manalishi) and their own, strong material. And Stevenson turned out to be a considerable master of guitar (and whammy bar!) from the blues howlings of Red House and Born Under A Bad Sign, through guitar-synth padding on his own songs, to the bi-manual filigreeing beloved of latter-day fret-melters. Drummer Bob Jenkins played a thoroughly workmanlike set and new young bass-player Gary Moxam also contributed effective harmonies. Jerry is a convincing lead vocalist with an agreeable strain of self-mockery: the whole band worked hard, and the initially-indifferent drinkers, gratified by his Hendrixy sounds, soon came to throng around the front.

Be Sharp have released four albums and a video which will be reviewed at 'Beyond the Pale' at some stage. Chiddingfold was just one of the month's twelve similar small-club dates for this hard-working band, which could easily be filling larger venues. Prodigal Jerry later explained that he had ended up on the same bill as Gary and his fellow Strangers only by coincidence: another hall, where Franky Brooker had intended to hold the Shoes gig, had become unavailable through 'trouble with builders'. Yet the unexpected opportunity to reprise The Truth Won't Fade Away with its original album personnel was never taken.

As Be Sharp quit the stage Gary introduced his guest, veteran British light entertainer Bernard Cribbins, whose three 1962 top-thirty hits - Gary briefly sang a bit of one, off-mic - include Right Said Fred. Cribbins is now a patron of White Lodge, an organisation for children with cerebral palsy and their families, and the evening's charitable beneficiary.

First we had the raffle draw - nice to see visiting Whalers, having generously bought copious tickets, going back to Germany with so many prizes, including tokens for shopping in Farnham! Then followed the auction of celebrity memorabilia: a tee-shirt from the recent Ringo tour, signed by all his Starrs, went for the excellent sum of 100, for which one also got an unfeasibly large black teddy-bear; an Eric Clapton tour programme signed by his whole band raised 80; a Genesis CD, a Phil Collins CD and two signed Phil Collins drumsticks went for 55; and a video of Evita ('starring Madonna and Gary Brooker') with a glossy brochure signed by Antonio Banderas fetched 50. Sadly there were no Procol memorabilia on offer: in fact, the band was never mentioned from the stage at all. However the sum raised by the evening overall was an excellent 850.

No Stiletto Shoes
Dave Bronze
, bass / vocal; Gary Brooker, vocal / piano / guitar; Margo Buchanan, vocal / percussion; Andy Fairweather Low, guitar / vocal; Frank Mead, alto and tenor saxophone, harmonica; Henry Spinetti, drums; Wix, Korg synth / piano / vocal; featuring Matthew Fisher, Korg synth / piano / percussion; Mike Sanchez, piano

The fund-raising had covered the disposal of the first band's gear, and the importing of a digital piano for Gary, though he bestowed more attention on a pair of fusty old tambourines that looked as though they might have been liberated from a local school! But this was a typically low-key prelude to the entry of No Stiletto Shoes, who were to treat us to an enjoyably frantic set, and generate an atmosphere increasingly redolent (I'm told) of the Saturday night 'hops' that I am not quite old enough to know about at first hand.

3 Procols on Friday: Gary, Mick, Dave

Many fans with tickets for both shows considered Saturday's Shoes showing considerably more lively and together than Friday's, even though Mick Grabham had graced the earlier show throughout, and Gary had made a superb return to the Paramounts' repertoire with such numbers as the Impressions' People Get Ready.

'We didn't manage to get a rehearsal in this year,' quipped Gary after the band had begun to Let The Good Times Roll; paradoxically this opening number had in fact sounded highly-arranged. But numbers like Hard To Handle were held together by eye-contact as well as ear-contact, especially in the case of anchor-man Bronze, whose eyes occasionally popped comically when some detail of the piano-playing surprised him. Dave later contributed to some fine four-part harmony singing, finger-in-ear, for Santa Claus is Back in Town.

Andy Fairweather Low on guitar seemed studious and self-effacing, though he took a number of lead vocals, during which Gary often quit the stage altogether, presumably retiring to chat with a mysterious musical guest of whom we had caught a tantalising glimpses through an offstage door. Andy enjoyed singing a Jimmy Reed number, and Hank Snow's Goodnight Irene, featuring Wix's sleazy accordion-sound. His own Wide Eyed And Legless sounded just like a forgotten classic and it was no surprise to hear Fairweather fans baying to hear it again.

Margo Buchanan, in black dress and pearls ('too cute to be a minute over seventeen'), brought a real cabaret glamour to the show. Her featured vocal numbers bore a marked contrast to the rest of the repertoire - sessions she has sung with Tina Turner, Mark Knopfler, Hall & Oates, Seal, Sam Brown, and Pink Floyd at the Albert Hall confirm her breadth of style - but the Shoes were equal to it all (though I did see Gary and Wix, duetting at the piano, recoil in shared comic distaste at the word 'jazz' when Margo asked us to generate the finger-popping vibe she required for My Baby Just Cares For Me). Other surprises included the inscrutable, catchy Eric Bazilian number, One Of Us, included to please younger fans whose memories extended no further back than Joan Osborne's recent hit, and a soulful reading of Carole King's You Make Me Feel Like A Natural Woman, which Margo later named as the piece she had most enjoyed singing all evening. She told me that she had got to know Gary in the context of the Band du Lac, and it was she who had introduced him to the amiable Wix, to whom she is married.

Wix and Gary, Friday

Margo, Friday

Wix and his razored sideburns spent much of the evening at the Korg synth; he played an engaging and capable set, content, like Gary, to remain in the musical background a lot of the time. Most of the evening's songs (their keys often hastily decided) were vehicles for some impassioned soloing: Gary took curiously few, and later relinquished his piano stool to Big Town Playboy Mike Sanchez, whose showy explorations of the high register contrasted interestingly with the solid, tasteful Brooker chord-work. Solos were evidently apportioned on the nod: and since only Frank Mead and Wix were facing Gary, and since Wix was occluded by Andy and Dave, the sax got the lion's share. Frank is a fascinating player to watch - his spasmodic contortions were quite alarming as he took a storming tenor solo on Good Golly Miss Molly. He seemed to be responding inwardly to King Lear's injunction, 'Blow winds, and crack your cheeks', and by the end of the evening his distended jowls would not have looked out of place at a glass-blowers' convention.

The predominance of sax solos seemed to suit Andy Fairweather Low: 'No more solos,' he called out on one number, ''cos I can't play any, that's for sure'! He played much of the evening in that characteristic chordal style we hear on the symphonic Butterfly Boys, usually without a pick, quick to mock himself over an apparently-fluffed chord. He had played chiefly rhythm to Mick Grabham's soloing on Friday, joining the Shoes a third of the way through their set after recuperating from his Big Town Playboys exertions. Yet Andy evidently 'cuts the mustard' as a guitarist with that highly-rated band: perhaps his self-deprecatory tendency explains why he fits in so well with Brooker and chums: Gary referred to him as 'one of my best mates, musically'.


Brooker and Fairweather Low: 'best mates, musically' (Saturday)

And of course one was always longing to hear more organ soloing in general, specially from the guest player whom Gary now invoked. 'Where's Maffo? Where's Matthew Charles? Just arrived on the late train from Croydon.' At this cue Wix migrated to the piano, and Matthew Fisher took his place, eyeing the Korg keyboard without great enthusiasm. Gary, standing at the front now, counted in Woolly Bully (in Portuguese, in honour of Antonio and Maria Alfaiate, who had come all the way from Lisboa) and gave a passionate vocal performance, even playing some air guitar and grinning hugely as Fisher's all-too brief solo propelled the whole evening to a higher level of musical freshness and excitement; audience vocalisations became an important feature of the show from this point on!

Despite the un-Procolesque ambience it was still A Whiter Shade Of Pale that received the loudest cheer of the night. Purists noted with delight that the four players remaining on stage for this number were all bona fide Procols; but a Korg does not sound quite like a Hammond, however consummately it's played, so one could not claim that this was an earth-shattering airing for the famous number. Bronze and Spinetti gave of their very best, but the song ran for no more than two verses, and Matthew did his best to crack Gary up with a seasonal quotation from Jingle Bells in the organ break at the end of verse one.

Spinetti, Brooker, Fairweather Low, Buchanan, Wix on Friday

As the evening wore on, finesse gave way to raw energy: Little Queenie had Frank Mead squealing some fine harmonica, and a raving Lucille brought an avalanche of scores down on the piano keyboard. Li'l Liza Jane featured a wittily syncopated sax clip from Dvorak's Humoresque! The hard-working Henry Spinetti was briefly glimpsed, sweating behind his kit, illuminated in a watery green: cymbal-splashes scattered reflections over the white bricks behind him like the rippling light on a swimming-pool wall. Wix was back on the organ, and Mike Sanchez on the piano: Margo and Matthew took hugely over-qualified turns on the fusty percussion, Fisher committed enough to thread his way across the stage to replace his headed tambourine for an open one.

Sanchez, Fisher, Fairweather Low on Saturday

Latterly Sanchez was chivvied up the stool so that Matthew could play left-hand piano. Dave Bronze took a memorable four-chorus bass-guitar solo, wittily winding up with Jack Bruce's Sunshine Of Your Love riff. And I mustn't forget the band's part-time axemonger, one Gary Brooker, and the 'wired' acoustic with which he wished us a Blue Christmas. 'It's one of those laughing moments when I play guitar,' he said, failing to rise to the bait as Dave Bronze played the opening stomp from Purple Haze!

Gary and Andy, Friday

Such banter and bonhomie were the hallmarks of a splendid evening's entertainment: despite occasionally ramshackle beginnings and endings, the Shoes' programme of standards, belters and whimsies was delivered with all the gusto and panache one would expect from players of such calibre. The echoes of Blueberry Hill had barely died away before everyone was loudly looking forward to Chiddingfold '98.

In the bar Gary Brooker had kindly offered his appreciation to the 'Beyond the Pale' team, and agreed that we need an authoritative eye to go through the song-words that we have published at the site: if they're going to be available, they ought to be entirely correct. No less an artist than Willie Nelson, he pointed out, had gone on record with a ridiculous mishearing, 'as the mirror told his tale'.

Of future plans, Gary was still very hopeful for the Brooker / Bruce / Frampton collaboration, though the death of Jack Bruce's son had naturally put paid to their song-writing stint in the summer, for which Peter Frampton had come over specially. Frampton now has an instrumental album scheduled ... after that we may see some action.

But ... despite the fact that he'd shared the stage with a Procol Harum bass-player, drummer, guitarist and organist over the past couple of nights, Mr Brooker said nothing at all about another Procol Harum album ... how I wish I'd had the gumption to ask him the same, direct question that he was about to answer so sensationally on Dutch television!

Warmest thanks to Antonio Alfaiate for despatching his photographs to 'Beyond the Pale'

An earlier gig of the same ilk

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